Your Hygienic Conscience

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)
Sep 13, 2006 3:00 AMNov 5, 2019 8:40 AM


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The NY Times has a story on a really fascinating finding: People who are feeling guilty have an increased desire to literally wash their hands, presumably to figuratively wash their hands of their wrongdoing.

The researchers had one group of students recall an unethical act from their past, like betraying a friend, and another group reflect on an ethical deed, like returning lost money. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, either a pencil or an antiseptic wipe. Those who had reflected on a shameful act were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe.

Very interesting to consider how the washing-your-hands metaphor ties in with an underlying human mechanism for purging guilt. I suspect that some ritualized types of guilt dumping (like this metaphorical type) are also instinctual. Is confession (either lay or religious) a natural way to clear your conscience? And what about the eating -- e.g., taking the Eucharist or, say, inhaling a pint of Ben and Jerry's?

But perhaps more importantly, did the researchers feel guilty for holding a study where the prizes were a pencil or an antiseptic wipe? Thanks a lot, doc. (Thanks to EZ for the tip.)

Update -- God cleans, too: "But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like launderer's soap" Malachi 3:2

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